WITH local government elections only a little over four months away, two leading members of the ruling coalition at Newtown have become involved in a bitter war of words.
In the blue corner is Carolyn Riddell-Carre (Selkirkshire), leader of the Conservative group on Scottish Borders Council and its executive member for planning and development, while occupying the yellow corner is Liberal Democrat Catriona Bhatia (Tweeddale West) who was forced to resign in 2010 as executive member for education for making her opposition to cuts in proposed nursery provision known to the media.
The pair crossed swords after Mrs Bhatia called for Councillor Jim Fullarton, the Berwickshire Tory who has responsibility for roads and infrastructure, to consider his position over the distribution of salt bins.
Her request came at the year’s final council meeting where Mr Fullarton was asked to defend the way the winter service plan, agreed by SBC’s executive in October, had been implemented.
Before the meeting, Mrs Bhatia claimed the redistribution of the region’s 830 grit receptacles had been a total shambles.
She told us: “I’ve had more complaints in a week of this winter than in the whole of last year’s worst winter on record.”
And she was particularly exercised about her own patch, asking Mr Fullarton for details of what communication there had been with residents in Tweeddale prior to salt/grit bins being removed, relocated or left unfilled. Despite an explanation which included a concession that the removal of grit bins may have given some members angst, Mrs Bhatia made her resignation enquiry which Mr Fullarton summarily declined to countenance.
After the meeting, Mrs Riddell-Carre rounded on her administration ally.
She blasted: “It was a matter of extremely poor judgement for Catriona Bhatia to call for Jim Fullarton’s resignation. She had tipped off the media in advance of her intentions, so this was not a hasty word spoken in the heat of the moment – it was clearly a piece of calculated nastiness.
“She is not a team player. She is clearly the ‘cat that walks by herself’ and I don’t think this was the doing of the Liberal group [on SBC].
“The council has managed its finances well, although last winter’s terrible weather took an appalling toll on the roads department’s finances and, in the course of preparing for this winter, we are trying to see that grit bins are in the right places. Councillor Bhatia knows all that because she is a member of the budget working group.
“Yes, there have been some mistakes, but the roads department is trying very hard to put these right. To pick on someone as well liked and decent as Jim Fullarton was a pointless thing to do.
“Did she really think we’d offer his position to her?”
The feline allusion, evoking one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So stories about the untameable nature of cats, produced an angry reaction from Mrs Bhatia.
She commented: “I can only say that it is unfortunate that reflecting the concerns and anger of my constituents has met with such a hostile and vicious personal attack by the leader of the Tory group whose bullying approach is not appreciated.”
Mr Fullarton declined to comment on the spat either before or after the meeting, but in his answer to questions from concerned councillors he reminded them the executive had already agreed to maintain the total number of grit bins at 830 and to allocate them on the basis of need through a new risk- assessment scoring system.
He said: “The process to determine the sites of the bins has only recently been completed and some 1,200 sites across the Borders had to be assessed,” adding that details of the changes within each area had now been issued to councillors and that further consultation with community councils over the effectiveness of the new arrangements was planned for the spring.
He went on: “I recognise the removal of some grit bins may have given some members angst and that is unfortunate, but we have to remember the new process is both transparent and sound.
“We can now be certain we are allocating bins where they are needed most. With almost 3,000km of roads to manage, we cannot locate bins on unadopted roads which we have no duty to service using public money, nor on priority gritting routes where a high level of service is already provided to 43 per cent of our road network.”
However, Rob Dickson, the SBC official who heads the roads and infrastructure department, has admitted mistakes in a candid email sent to councillors on December 14.
He wrote: “Due to a breakdown in communication a very few salt bins had not been filled in time for the arrival of winter conditions. This situation was totally unacceptable … this should not have occurred and I assure you that all recorded salt bins were filled by the middle of last week.”
Asked if she believed her call for Mr Fullarton’s resignation would impact on the effectiveness of the council’s administration in the run-up to the election, Mrs Bhatia told us: “I am sure that with the goodwill of the festive season we can put the matter behind us and continue to work in the best interests of the people of the Borders.”